Smoke Across the Fields #10640
Surrounded by green mountains and under blue skies, it’s a beautiful summer weekend in rural central Pennsylvania. The East Broad Top Railroad is busy working hauling tourists out of Orbisonia on pleasure runs through the day. The old Baldwin steam locomotive pushes up a tall plume of black smoke that drifts away across a landscape of freshly cut hay fields. This scene was repeated hundreds of times a year through the heyday when this little narrow gauge railroad was making its living hauling coal and gannister trains until 1956 when it ceased operations.
This is a place known on the railroad as McMillen’s Summit. It’s not much of a summit as they usually go. But the East Broad Top steam locomotive has to work a little bit to get to the top of the grade, making plenty of black smoke under the effort.
A narrow lane leading to the farm on the right goes over the track on an equally narrow bridge covered in thick wooden planks. It was on that bridge I stood to shoot this oncoming train settled into the scenic Pennsylvania mountain landscape. This was the slow train alright; what’s the hurry when reliving history and having fun? Eventually, it lumbered closer and went clanking and chuffing underneath, letting me stand in thick black coal smoke for a few seconds. Truly a breathtaking experience in more ways than one.
Note the interesting small detail of two poles with a single drooped line hanging across the track. That’s a very simple old-fashioned telltale, a device to warn trainmen riding the tops of cars when a low overpass was about to run under, so you’d better soon duck!
And it’s easy to see the width of the narrow gauge track from atop the bridge at McMillen’s Summit, three feet between the rails.
The Future of the East Broad Top Railroad
This narrow gauge railroad was only a shortline of 33 mainline miles in length but always had plenty to haul for most of its service life as a commercial carrier. Back in the heyday of resource extraction industries in Pennsylvania, it hauled coal, timber, iron ore, pig iron, gannister used in brick making, and all manner of farm products. In passenger service back in the day, another important resource it hauled were the people who worked in and lived around all those industries too.
Presently, this historical railroad hasn’t run at all for several years and is up for sale. It has survived intact as a tourist railroad for decades since its last days as a commercial common carrier. Hopefully, a buyer will eventually come forward to resurrect this little narrow gauge railroad once again and offer the public a chance to see what railroading was like in the 1920s. For now and for a few decades now, much maintenance effort to keep the old shop buildings and offices standing has been made by the volunteers of the Friends of the East Broad Top. Their website offers a lot of information about this unique railroading gem from the Victorian era.
Another interesting look at this narrow gauge railroad live steam train in action is At The Switch #3604 which shows a close-up of one of the old Baldwin steam locomotives from above. Stillness In The Roundhouse #14193 shows all six of the East Broad Top’s locomotives at rest in their roundhouse berths in Rockhill Furnace.
UPDATE: Since this article was written, the East Broad Top Railroad has been taken over by a non-profit intended to restore this historic narrow gauge railroad. It’s a valuable piece of industrial age history as a completely intact Victorian-era industrial artifact. There was recently the return to running tourist trains under steam power at the EBT during the 2023 Winter Spectacular featuring newly restored locomotive #16. See my pictures Ready To Run #15273 or Home Stretch #15272 for pictures of EBT #16 and short articles on this restoration effort
Location: McMillen’s Summit on the East Broad Top Railroad, Orbisonia, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Picture and story © Andrew Dierks
Up Next: Daisy Street Trolley #14160